Ever since vacationing in Garden City Beach with his family as a youngster from his native Hickory, N.C., in the 1960s and 70s, Tom Swatzel has been enamored with the marine environment along the South Carolina coast.
“We spent most of our time fishing, which I loved to do,” Swatzel said.
Now a Murrells Inlet resident, he recalled of those trips to the beach.
“In high school, it seemed to me that the best job you could possibly have was to get paid as a deckhand or captain to work on a charter or head boat,” he said.
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In 1975, Swatzel was hired as a summer deckhand on a head boat out of Capt. Dick’s Marina, and his long association with Murrells Inlet and its fishing industry began.
A little over 30 years later with a Marine Biology degree from UNC-Wilmington in hand and decades of experience as a captain and owner-operator in the charter-party boat industry, Swatzel began serving on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC).
Swatzel was nominated by then-Gov. Mark Sanford in 2007 and appointed to the regional fishery council in 2007 for the standard three-year term by then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez. Swatzel was re-appointed for a second term in 2010.
Council members can serve a maximum of three consecutive terms, and Swatzel was nominated once again for what would have been a final three-year term by Gov. Nikki Haley earlier this year.
However, acting Secretary of Commerce Cameron Kerry, the brother of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, declined to re-appoint Swatzel and opted for another Murrells Inlet resident – Chris Conklin, owner-operator of Seven Seas Seafood.
Swatzel’s stint on the SAFMC will be over on Aug. 11.
“While I would have liked to have been reappointed, I’ve had the privilege of representing fishing interests on the SAFMC for six years,” said Swatzel. “It’s been a great experience for which I’m very grateful.”
Swatzel has become intimately familiar with the council’s constant battle of maintaining healthy fish stocks and allowing fishermen enough access to the resource to survive financially.
“Sometimes achieving sustainable fisheries is a difficult balancing act,” Swatzel said. “My view is that we should strive for sustainable fisheries that economically and socially benefit all fishing sectors and fishing communities to the highest extent possible.
“In my time in office I’ve had the honor of interacting with so many fishermen and coastal businesses from North Carolina to Key West, Fla., who were willing to stand up for their livelihood by speaking out at SAFMC meetings or testifying at public hearings. I greatly admire their efforts and hope it will continue.”
One of the biggest issues the council has dealt with during Swatzel’s stint has been the process of rebuilding stocks of species of fish such as black sea bass, vermilion snapper and red snapper that were deemed to be overfished.
Both recreational and commercial fishermen have been irate with fisheries managers that while stocks of numerous species have been seemingly rebuilt, the annual catch limits on the species have remained low and the open fishing season short.
A lack of timely stock assessments is one of the main culprits, Swatzel said.
“The only way to increase annual catch limits is through stock assessments that document that fisheries can sustainably yield more fish,” Swatzel said. “There’s a huge backlog of assessment requests. Even with some of the most economically important species like black sea bass or vermilion snapper, we’re lucky to get assessments every three to five years. That’s just not fair to fishermen.
“As we saw with recent stock assessments on vermilion (snapper) and black sea bass, those species were no longer overfished and the ACLs could be substantially increased. How many other species remain in restrictive rebuilding plans, but yet may be no longer overfished, because of the lack of a timely stock assessment?”
Limits and quotas restrict catches like never before, but the number of fishermen ready to harvest fish is also at an all-time high in the South Atlantic region. Swatzel has spent the last six years intensely scrutinizing fish stocks in the region and certainly has an educated opinion on just how healthy fish stocks in the South Atlantic and off the South Carolina coast are.
“Fish stocks in the South Atlantic, and specifically off South Carolina, are in good shape,” said Swatzel. “Of the 67 finfish species managed by the SAFMC, only 4 species, all within the snapper-grouper complex, are considered overfished.”
Starting in a month, when his days on the council are over, Swatzel will devote more time to what he loves – fishing. He is a back-up captain when needed on two charter boats he owns – Fish Finder and Fish Finder II – that run out of Crazy Sister Marina.
Swatzel, 55, will also focus more on Swatzel Strategies, a campaign consulting, issue advocacy and public relations firm he started in 2011.
“I plan on staying active in fisheries management issues but will now have more time to actually fish,” Swatzel said.